Mastodon’s Brann Dailor recently talked to MD to discuss the band’s heartfelt tribute to their longtime friend and manager, Nick John, who lost his battle with pancreatic cancer this past September 8. John was a Led Zeppelin fanatic; at the same time, he held two of the bands that he managed, Mastodon and Gojira, in equally high esteem, repeatedly referring to Mastodon as his Led Zeppelin.
For Record Store Day this year, Mastodon released the 10″ LP “Stairway to Nick John,” the band’s faithful rendition of the Led Zeppelin masterpiece “Stairway to Heaven,” all proceeds of which go to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research. “Nick loved Record Store Day,” says Dailor, “and he loved when bands did one-offs or released rarities. He was such a fan and collector of music. One of his favorite places to be in the world was an independent record store, especially on Record Store Day, and now his big, bright, shiny, smiling face is on every shelf in every record store in America. It’s beautifully poetic! We’re going to continue to write music about him and for him, and talk about him, until we’re done.”
As much as the members of Mastodon are fans of Led Zeppelin, they didn’t have a cover of “Stairway to Heaven” in their repertoire before John’s passing, and there aren’t obvious sonic parallels between the two bands. So why did John make link them in his head? “He was the most complimentary person,” says Dailor. “He would tell you with such sincerity how he felt, and it was always very embarrassing to hear, but he was full of compliments for us.
“We don’t sound like Zeppelin,” Brann continues, “but he heard similarities in how we wrote and played music together. I think that he saw us as four very individual characters, and he believed that the sum of our parts is what makes Mastodon special. That’s what he felt was so special about Zeppelin too. It was something intangible about those four guys in a room or on a stage that you can’t touch, because their personalities just came out. And they were all big personalities, but somehow they worked together, and I guess that’s how he viewed us.
“I can say that when we first played together there was this undeniable spark of electricity in the room. I think that’s what attracted all of us to it enough to leave our families and go on the road eating bologna sandwiches every day. We were in love with this thing we were creating. So I can understand him making the comparison.”
After John passed away, his wife asked the members of Mastodon to play “Stairway to Heaven” at his funeral service. “It wasn’t a song we’d ever intended on covering, but of course we said we’d do it,” says Dailor. “I was dreading it because I didn’t know where I was going to be emotionally that day. It was going to be a tough day, saying goodbye to one of our closest friends. A day when I knew I would be sad and pissed off that this awesome human and amazing person had to suffer like that and go like that. But there we were, faced with this hard truth, and we were able to pull it off. We felt good afterwards in that we did the song justice and did something awesome for our boy to send him off in a good way.”
The version of the song they had performed at the funeral mass was stripped down, with Dailor playing percussion while singing. Unbeknownst to the band, Joe Duplantier, lead vocalist and guitarist of Gojira, had recorded audio of the band’s performance on his phone. When he got back to his studio in New York, he tweaked the levels and sent it over to the Mastodon camp. The church’s naturally beautiful acoustics and the band’s raw and emotional performance translated wonderfully.
“We all agreed that it came out pretty good,” says Dailor. “So we decided, what better way to immortalize our friend than to put his face real big on a 10″ record, call it ‘Stairway to Nick John’ so his name was right on the cover, record a studio version so we had an A-side and B-side, and then donate all the proceeds to pancreatic cancer research.”
Initially, for the studio version of the song the band intended only to record a bare-bones arrangement, but once they got in the studio, that went out the window. The band’s studio version remains quite true to the recording on Zeppelin IV but also to Mastodon’s sound. And it’s worth mentioning that on both versions, Dailor’s vocals are exceptional; the soaring climax, where he belts out the line “And as we wind on down the road,” is goose-bump inducing.
It’s also notable that on the studio version, Dailor didn’t chase Bonham’s drum tones. “Selfishly, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to play ‘the fill,’ says Dailor. “That’s a fill that needs to be in quotations! [laughs] But I’d never taken the time to sit down and learn ‘Stairway’ on the drums. I don’t know why—I’ve always loved the song.
“When most people listen to ‘Stairway to Heaven,’” Dailor continues, “they’re probably not thinking much about the drums, unless they’re a drummer. There are a lot of intricacies and nuances that are pretty difficult in that tune—like in all of Bonham’s work, really. One of the hardest things to do as a drummer—and what drummers like Bonham were so good at—is masking complex parts so that to the laymen’s ear, there’s nothing to call attention to what the drums are doing. When you’re a musician you hear the nuances—the subtle hi-hat inflections, the ghost notes, the strange bass drum placement. You don’t have to be a serious musician to digest all that’s happening, but there’s certainly a lot going on under the surface. I tend to put the technical stuff way out in front and don’t do a good job of hiding it!” [laughs]